Have you ever heard the common Japanese phrase もったいない mottainai? I find myself using it almost every day. If you haven’t yet heard this expression, try to guess the meaning from the following sentences:
Were you able to guess the meaning? At a basic level, the English equivalent to もったいない is “wasteful”. However, when Japanese people say もったいない, it has somewhat deeper implications, ones that extend beyond the waste of mere physical resources.
Historically, Japanese Buddhists used the term もったいない for expressing remorse when things like sacred items or teachings were wasted or used incorrectly. Over time, もったいない evolved into a general saying that is often heard when someone receives something nice, whether it is a gift or simply a compliment. Note the use of the phrase in the situations below:
It’s too much for me.
She is too gorgeous for you.
The phrase もったいない is built from two words: もったい（勿体）and ない . The term 勿体means “worth” or “importance,” while ない (無い) indicates an “absence” or “lack” of something. Besides ない, the word もったい can be used with words such as ぶる and つける in expressions such as もったいぶる and もったいつける, as demonstrated here:
たいしたことないのに、彼はいつももったいぶって (もったいつけて) 話す。
He always talks as if insignificant things were important.
Recently, a movement has begun to increase environmental protection awareness by spreading the ideological concepts behind the phrase もったいない around the world. After visiting Japan in 2005, Kenyan professor, environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai started a campaign to introduce the world to the idea of もったいない, introducing the word mottainai at a session of the United Nations.
Wangari Maathai, Copyright The Mainichi Newspapers
You can view the website of the Japanese campaign that inspired Professor Maathai, while the organization that continues to promote her conservation ideas can be found at GreenBeltMovement.org.
In 2007, a song was even created in an effort to introduce the important concept of もったいない to children – although it quickly became popular among adults as well! Unfortunately, at the time of writing this article, I cannot find a link to this song. If you know where it can be found, please tell us in the discussion!
Also, J-pop singer Kyari-pamyu-pamyu just released a new song “Mottai-Nightland” in October. However, in the song もったいない doesn’t mean “waste,” but rather indicates regret or a feeling of loss. .
A series of books started in 2004 by Mariko Shinju featuring the character「もったいない ばあさん」 (Mottainai Baasan) has become quite popular among children. When someone wastes or throws something useful away, Mottainai Baasan appears and says “もったいない！” The books are aimed at teaching kids how to use things properly to the end of their useful lives.
I am currently teaching Japanese to a pair of Syrian children (ages 5 and 8) living in Japan. When they lose their belongings, they are quick to say, “We can just buy another one.” They know that Japan has many stores and that most items can be easily replaced. I told them that “even if you can buy it again, you should be careful to not lose things. もったいないよ！” Every time that they lose something – an eraser, a pencil, a soccer ball – I said this same thing to them. Lately, they have started saying もったいないto each other when one of them loses a possession. And from time to time they can even be heard saying, “I still use this!”
I hope everyone works at keeping もったいない in mind for the good of our planet. Do you have a phrase similar to もったいない in your native language?